In this Oct. 17, 2009 file photo, Penn State coach Joe Paterno smiles as he walks the field before an NCAA college football game against Minnesota in State College, Pa. On Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, family says Paterno, winningest coach in major college football, has died. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
If life had taken a right turn, Joe Paterno would still be enjoying the pleasures of living. Jerry Sandusky would be behind bars. State College, Pa., would still be Happy Valley, and somebody would have made a movie of what a college haven should be. Never, though, has one pictorial American campus fallen from its pedestal with such a plunge, and with such finality.
Joe Paterno was its father figure. This campus town seemed to have revolved around this singular man, the football coach. Not the president, or a Mr. Chiipsof of this revered institution that lived within itself, and invited the world to drop in and have a visit. To get an eyeful of how it's done, or how it should be done. How education and the sweaty art of football lived in blissful peace.
The football uniforms sort of said it all. Plain white, dark numbers across the shirts, contrasting dark and white. And maybe I'm giving into a flawed memory, but it seems the players wore black high-tops. I'm sure I'm wrong, but it just seems so in memory.
And these Nittany Lions -- called so for the Nittany Mountains that sort of stood guard over the town -- stand strong in memory for one high moment. They were matched against the gruff, roughneck pack of Miami Hurricanes in what is still called the Fiesta Bowl, I think.
And the guys in plain blue and white uniforms took down the brutes from Coral Gables
But I drift. I was privileged to know Joe Paterno fairly well. To ever have imagined him in such a plight as this is beyond belief -- a man brought down by a misplaced loyalty, The Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award is reserved for the college coach who did it right. And as if to prove that we got it right the first time, Paterno is the only coach awarded it twice. I'll never forget how just it appeared when he sat before the Dodd Committee and we realized how firmly he fit the bill.
Joe Paterno grew up in Brooklyn. Schooled at Brown University on a football scholarship, played for Rip Engle as a defensive back -- then followed Engle to Penn State as one of his assistant coaches. The thing was, he did it the right way, which is why so many were crushed when Paterno's career tripped over one of his assistant coaches. Jerry Sandusky had been one of his players, so Joe had known him from youth.
Joe's loyalty to Sandusky brought him down, though it is inconceivable that he should have been that vulnerable. About two years ago we planned to get together, and I have his letter, which said, "I'll wait for you to call." Unfortunately, something intervened. The call was never made, and I join in the grief that overwhelms the community of State College, and wonder how Joe Paterno's misplaced judgment could ever have led to such a crashing tragedy.
State College will suffer many a year before it becomes Happy Valley again.
Furman Bisher is one of the deans of American sports writing. The longtime Atlanta sports journalist is a member of the Georgia and Atlanta Sports Halls of Fame and in addition to his newspaper writing has authored multiple books on major figures like Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer. He writes periodic columns for the Daily Post.